Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Good Shepherd

The Bible is filled with images that it uses to picture reality. God is a rock, a fortress, a warrior. People are mists. Life can become a very dark valley. Images. Jesus uses lots of images. Sometimes He uses them to picture Himself. He is the door, the life, the vine. Today, we're going to look at another of these images. Jesus is the Good Shepherd. And unlike the hired hand, He cares for His flock of helpless sheep. And that care extends to the ultimate sacrifice. Listen to what Jesus says. (John 10.11-18)

Three times Jesus says that He lays down His life for His sheep. He is talking about the Cross. It seems very apt, with Good Friday on the horizon, to spend a little time trying to see more of what's going on when Jesus lays down His life. I have one goal especially in mind. I want you to see Jesus as a person, a human, someone who is just like you. I want you to see what happened on Good Friday not as simply a teaching to agree with. I want you to see what happened as one person watching another person face something horrific. Seeing Good Friday more clearly will help you see the Gospel more clearly.

Here's my first thought. He didn't want to do it. Jesus didn't want to go to that Cross. We know that He didn't want to because we have overheard His prayer on the night of His arrest.

Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.

We can read that as if spoken calmly, without any strong feeling. 'You know, I'd rather not. But if you insist - well, okay.' But it wasn't spoken that way at all. Listen to what was happening as He prayed those words.

And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground. 

This isn't anything like, 'I'd rather not but...' Luke uses words like 'agony' and 'more earnestly' to describe what’s going on in Jesus. And do you remember that Jesus needed the help of an angel as He struggled with His prayer. He didn't want to do it.
As you consider that, one thing is made clear. This was no make-believe situation. God wasn't putting on an interesting little play, filling the role of one of the characters who dies at the end of the play - but not really. It's just a play, right? No, this is very real. Jesus is very human. So, dying on a Cross was not just part of the plot to act out for the audience, and then later go to the cast party. No. It was real. It was His life. It was His death. And He didn't want to do it. You wouldn't.

Now, we need to ask the why question. Why is it that Jesus didn't want to be nailed to that Cross? Saying it that way makes the answer obvious. Who wants to suffer? Who wants to hurt? Nails? Dying on a Cross was pain in the extreme and that for an extended time. And it was designed to be that. Jesus wasn't going to float above all of that. He was going to feel it. He was going to feel all the excruciating pain of a slow death. Who wants to go through that? Should anyone wonder why Jesus didn't want to do it?

Yet - and this gets us to a deeper answer to our question - there have been untold Christians since who went to death, even very painful deaths, calmly. Think of the saints sent to the Coliseum with its wild animals or others being burned alive. Martyrs for Jesus approached death without the struggle that Jesus experienced during His prayers. Why? Why were they so calm and He so agitated? Jesus explains:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Jesus said those words from the Cross. And they help us understand that Jesus' greatest suffering on the Cross was not the physical anguish - as great as that was. I have talked to you about the life of God. I've told you that for an eternity God - Father, Son and Spirit - experienced open, intimate and enjoyable relationships with each other. A few months ago, I was given a fleeting taste of what it might actually feel like to enjoy something like that, in its fullness, with God. No barriers, no secrets, no hiding, no shame, no fear. Open, intimate, so enjoyable. It was just a fleeting taste - just a few seconds - but it was amazing. Try to imagine enjoying the full experience, completely unbroken for an eternity. Jesus enjoyed that. And then, try to imagine being plunged into the exact opposite. Complete contempt, utter rejection, intense hatred. Forsaken. Someone who has never been loved doesn't feel the pain of being forsaken. But what does that say of someone who knew love in ways that we never have - and then had it ripped away? Jesus went from beloved Son in whom His Father was so very pleased to despised and hated scum.

Jesus went from drinking deeply of the glories of divine love to being plunged into the depth of divine rage. Behind that rejection of Jesus was the Father's justice against sin. Hell has become a debated issue these days. There are some who think that the idea of hell is just too dark. It pictures God as too angry. Well, it is dark, and He is angry. It is, after all, God's justice against those who would unthrone Him if they could. Those in hell know all about God's angry justice against their sin. But imagine experiencing that anger, not just for the sins of one lifetime, but for the sins of a multitude of lifetimes. Jesus suffered divine darkness and wrath for all of the sins of all of His sheep. Countless hells condensed into those horrible hours on a Cross.

I hope that it is clear that the Father and the Son are not going through some game, acting out make-believe roles. Jesus faced the Cross in the way that He did because it was real for Him. His suffering, both physical and emotional, was very, very real. No play acting. And that will help you understand a little better why Jesus was in agony during His prayers that night in Gethsemane.

The right question at this point is, 'How was He able to do it?' Now that you have a better sense of what He endured, that's the right question to ask. But the right answer is not, 'Well, He was God, so it was no big deal.' You can see that that doesn't fit the facts. Jesus faced the Cross as a human, as a person about to be cut off from everything that made His life worth living, everything that made His life good. But He was not forced to do that. He did it by choice. How? Another word from the Cross.

Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” 

This is a quote from one of the Psalms. To understand what Jesus means, you need to hear this in context.

In you, O Lord, do I take refuge; let me never be put to shame; in your righteousness deliver me! Incline your ear to me; rescue me speedily! Be a rock of refuge for me, a strong fortress to save me! For you are my rock and my fortress; and for your name's sake you lead me and guide me; you take me out of the net they have hidden for me, for you are my refuge. ​Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.

This is one of David's psalms. He is in trouble. A net has been laid, and David has been trapped in it. There were some who were out to get him, and it appears that they had succeeded. And so, David does what he is supposed to do. It's the only thing that he can do. He cries out to his God. And he uses the right words to describe this God: a rock (the picture of stability), a strong fortress (the picture of safety and security). And he is clear what he wants his God to do. He is crying out that his God might rescue him. He is depending completely on that rescue. That's what the phrase 'let me never be put to shame' is about. 'I'm counting on You, Lord. You have to come through for me or I am utterly lost.' And so, as an expression of his trust David says, '​Into your hand I commit my spirit.' David believes the promises of God and entrusts himself to those promises. He places his fate into God's hands. And that is what Jesus is also doing. His ability to face and endure the horrors of the Cross all hang on this: Jesus trusts the Father. He expects Him to act. He expects Him to rescue Him. And so, He goes to the Cross. And His trust is not misplaced. Easter Sunday is the proof of that.

One more question. Why did Jesus go through with all of this? The answer is not hard to discover. He's already told us. It's because He's the Good Shepherd. He is determined to take care of His sheep. And if that means going to the Cross with all that that holds for Him, He is willing to go. He is the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for His sheep.

My goal for the sermon is quite simple. It has to do with two things: your thinking about Jesus and your living for Jesus. Ask any kid who's been to Sunday school to tell you about Jesus, and he'll probably say something like, 'Jesus died on the Cross for my sins.' That's good, even though, since he's just a kid, he doesn't understand much of what that's all about. It is my desire that you would have a growing understanding of what that's all about. It is my desire that when you say, 'Jesus died on the Cross for my sins', there would be a growing appreciation of what that means. I'm thinking that we'll spend eternity continuing to grow in our understanding of what the Cross was all about.

Growing in your thinking about Jesus and the Cross will affect your living for Jesus . I suppose, after hearing a sermon like this, some might be motivated to live for Jesus because of a sense of guilt: 'Look at what pain I caused Jesus!' There may be others who will be motivated by a sense of debt: 'I need to pay Jesus back for what He's done for me.' You realize that the Scriptures call for neither of those sorts of responses. And I hope that you also realize why. In light of what Jesus accomplished on that Cross, they make no sense. How does responding out of a sense of guilt make sense when the point of the Cross is to free you from all guilt? And does anyone really think that he could pay Him back? Could anyone come close to paying a tenth of a percent of what is owed Him? Those motivations just don't fit. And sooner or later, they will cease to motivate. If you think about it, the Scriptures call for something very different from either of those responses. Instead of guilt or debt re-payment the Scriptures call for loyalty, a loyalty rooted in love. Jesus has rescued you from what you could not have rescued yourself - not in a million years. What makes sense is a love that says, 'Whatever You want, Lord, I'm ready to do it.' And we say this not out of guilt or a sense of debt, but because of love. He knows that you will stumble in keeping that promise. But making it is still a good thing. It's a place to start. It's responding to His love for you with your love for Him.